Childhoods in a World at War 1939-1945
- Digital Exhibition -


More than 100 years ago, the founder of Save the Children and fighter for the safeguarding and protection of children and their rights, Eglantyne Jebb, said:

Her words have held the same force throughout the 20th century and the present, witnesses of conflicts that have claimed millions of victims among combatants and non-combatants. Since 1914, wars have become an increasingly atrocious experience both on the front lines and in the rearguard. And in them, the most vulnerable and defenceless segments of the civilian population – women, the elderly and children – were and continue to be protagonists, witnesses and victims.

Work of art created for the 4º peace poster contest (1939), by Leonard Thomas Walter, aged 15, from Connecticut. ©TriCollege Libraries Digital Collections (Swarthmore College Peace Collection, sc:95759)

In the context of armed conflict, the Second World War (WWII) represented the zenith of violence against civilians and, in particular, against children. World War II marked an entire generation of children on five continents. Their desires for a lasting peace after the disasters of the Great War were aborted on September 1, 1939, with a war that had multiple impacts on their lives and memories. Gena Yushkevich was 10 years old at the outbreak of WWII, which shortly thereafter ravaged her native country, the USSR. Interviewed by Svetlana Alekseyevich, she recalls how shocked she was when she first saw death: “I woke up in the morning…. I wanted to jump out of bed, then I remembered: it’s war, and I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to believe it.”

This exhibition offers an overview of children’s experiences during World War II and its lasting effects on childhood, while at the same time demonstrating the importance of peace for the present and the future through stories and examples from the recent past. From 1939 to 1945, millions of children experienced a radical transformation of their daily lives, lived through the war on a daily basis, tried to survive its horrors and took on responsibilities that did not correspond to their age.

A woman and her children in a Europe under bombardment. Author Matysik, Theo “Whitey” (1945). ©TriCollege Libraries Digital Collections (Swarthmore College Peace Collection, sc:95564)
Evacuee boys and girls growing cabbages, 1940. Painting by Leila Faithfull. © Imperial War Museums (ART.LD 428)

Wartime scenarios represented a violation of the 1924 Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child, a historic text on Human Rights, promoted by the aforementioned Eglantyne Jebb. Through these panels, we reflect collective stories of children whose lives were characterized by educational and schooling difficulties, hunger, rationing, evacuations and separation from their families, bombings, deportation, forced labour, extermination or their participation on war fronts or as resistance fighters. These traumatic events represent black holes in the memory of our societies that we must not forget in the face of the dramatic repetition that we still witness today

Along with children’s experiences, the exhibition recovers the role of women, as sometimes silenced agents. In this sense, we reflect that the wars were also fought and won by women with a variety of jobs in rearguards and on the front line. Furthermore, this small sample shows that war, and the concentration of all resources in the war effort by the belligerents, involved and affected children all over the world. Therefore, we do not want to forget that the conflict we are talking about was a global war that drew on the material and human resources of European colonies and countries in Asia, Africa and Oceania. The experiences of the children of these territories cannot be dissociated from the criminal machinery of war. Thus, with this exhibition we encourage reflection upon the deep imprint left by WWII in the European memory, but also in those parts of the world where the war and its implications did not end in 1945 and, above all, where they have not ended.
Female work during the war, India. Cleaning and lubrication tasks in a Mumbai factory. ©Library of Congress (2017697626)
Group of women and children in the Hanh-Thong-Tay women’s camp during the Indochina War, November 1952. © Archives du Comité International de la Croix-Rouge (V-P-INDO-N-00005-20)
Eglantyne Jebb. © Save the Children (CH164260)
Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child (1924). © Save the Children (CH1689091).
It's Human Rights Day for Them, Too. Group of children looking at the Declaration of Human Rights (1950). (1950). United Nations Photo (UN7720844)
Continue being a child?

Childhood in everyday life

World War II is considered a “total war”, among other reasons, because of the civilian component of its victims: 66% compared to 5% in the Great War (1914-1918). (1914-1918). In it, children had to take on premature responsibilities such as helping with or fulfilling their parents’ duties, leaving school, working or sometimes begging and trafficking on the black market. Scarcity of raw materials and hunger marked the daily lives of thousands of civilians during the war. To obtain food, children often accompanied their mothers in long queues. In addition, rationing particularly affected children: at the end of the war, a French Red Cross report showed that the most malnourished group was adolescents between 13 and 21 years of age.
Children looking for food in the rubbish. France. c. 1945. ©Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes (A106104 /A106105)
“Queue for food: milk and butter”. Autumn of 1940. Painting by G. Lehoux, pupil at the Cours Complémentaire de l'École de jeunes filles, 123 rue de Patay, Paris. © Réseau Canopé – Musée national de l’Éducation (1979.09331.6)

Evacuations, the departure of men to the war front, deportation, disease and bombing meant that many children and teenagers found themselves on their own. Some had to engage in hunger-driven theft and robbery, such as the petty dealers in the Warsaw ghetto, the szmugler. In particularly famine-stricken areas such as Greece, looting and smuggling of staple foods intensified. The authorities cracked down hard on the black market and propaganda warned of its consequences. Practices such as the collection of gunpowder for the ammunition trade were also dangerous: in Italy at the end of the war, there were 15,000 mutilatini, “little mutilated ones”.

The absence of the male figure meant that many women raised their children alone, which sometimes posed a problem of reconciling work and family life in a context of a high rate of female extramarital employment. To this end, women’s support and childcare networks were created. In some countries, public day-care centres were provided for working mothers in the war industry. In 1942, a conference on “child care and the war” was held in Australia, where the Commonwealth funded day-care centres for school-age and pre-school children. In the United States, the Lanham Act of 1940, which made possible a series of social programs during the war years, subsidized the care of between 500,000 and 600,000 children of working women.

Fellow citizens! Women and children are the victims of the Black Market! Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, Bélgica, 1940. ©Musée de la Libération de Paris - musée du Général Leclerc - musée Jean Moulin (2013.1.11)
Working mothers. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943. © U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (516193, Creative Commons CC0 License)

In this context, being able to do “children’s things” such as playing or going to school were real oases. The aid organizations were aware of this and tried to provide spaces for play and disconnection from reality, as did the totalitarian regimes, for example with the celebration of the fascist Befana in Italy in the occupied territories.

It became common to “play at war”. Figurines inspired by the leaders and armies of each country were marketed and games based on the exercise of power were developed, for example, imitating the attitude of the kapos in the Auschwitz camp. Likewise, governments were aware of the propagandistic use of games, songs or children’s literature as a form of indoctrination.

A small group of Spanish children sitting at a table in the Rivesaltes internment camp, playing with blocks. © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (54696)
A 4-year-old British girl playing with her dolls, 1943. In this image we see how the lack of commodities affected everyday life, such as clothing. © Imperial War Museums (D 13101).
Homemade doll for Christmas made from recycled tissues, 1943. © Imperial War Museums (D 17282)

Education in the face of barbarism

The beginning of the 1939-1940 school year was disrupted by the declaration of war in Western Europe and the displacement of civilian populations. In Great Britain, schools were closed for between one week and three months. Forty-seven percent of the schoolchildren – 637,000 – were evacuated inland and only 300 teachers remained in London, where schools were sometimes requisitioned and used as staging areas for refugees, fire or emergency stations. In France, Belgium, the Netherlands (from May 1940) or Italy (from 1942), schoolchildren were also evacuated and emergency schools were opened, even in internment and concentration camps. As a consequence of the evacuations, in countries such as Denmark, children arriving from Finland faced serious learning difficulties due to the change of language.

School on a farm (Normandy, 1944). ©Archives départementales de la Manche/ conseil dép. (13Num-1754).
Schools had to adapt to wartime conditions (London, 1941). © Imperial War Museums (D 3151)

In the countries occupied by the German army, one of the measures that most affected children was the restructuring of the educational system. In the words of Heinrich Himmler, it was considered that the non-German population should not have universities and that a four-year school “was enough for them”. In response, secret educational networks were set up in territories such as Ukraine and Poland. Thanks to the Tajna Organizacja Nauczycielska (Secret Teachers’ Organization), approximately 27,000 Polish children graduated between 1939 and 1945. In countries such as Slovenia, the imposition of German – a language the students did not know – changed the academic curriculum. The advance of the fronts and material and food shortages led to the reduction of the school day (France) or the closure of schools (Netherlands). In Greece, the 1941-1942 school year lasted only three months and that of 1942-1943, 20 days.

Educational changes in the war years had in sport and physical activity one of their main manifestations. The desire to create a “strong youth, healthy in body and spirit” led to the imposition of physical education in schools. Youth movements such as the Compagnons de la jeunesse (from the age of 14 to 20), the Hitler Youth or the League of Young German Girls (from the age of 10) or the L’Opera nazionale balilla (from the age of 6) also emphasized the centrality of sport.

Childrern exercising in a group organized by Secours Suisse aux enfants en Rivesaltes (1941-42). ©United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (32228)
The role of artistic expression and its therapeutic capacity highlighted during the war and in the post-war period by pedagogues and psychiatrists such as Alfred and Françoise Brauner. “Happy again far from the bombs and suffering; thanks to the Secours National, but thanks above all to your generosity”. Drawing by Marie Lauffer, pupil of the Institution Jeanne d'Arc, 1943. ©Archives de la ville de Saint Denis (19 S 10/19); “Back home and to school”. Drawing by a child at Izieu (1942-1944). ©Bibliothèque Nationale de France

During the war, 15,000 primary schools were totally or partially destroyed in France, almost 300 in Belgium and nearly 23,000 in Italy. Austria lost 640 schools and Poland 6,152. In Greece and Yugoslavia, up to 91% and 81% respectively were destroyed. In addition, the fall of authoritarian regimes meant the almost complete reorganization of educational systems, as well as the implementation of projects, such as colonies for children who had suffered violence, based on peace and the construction of a better world.

Until the end of the war, educational and cultural spaces were essential for European children. Alfred Sutton Junior School, Reading (Gran Bretaña), 1945. Library in a newly constructed County School, 1945. © Imperial War Museums (D 25278/ D 25741)
Departure of children to summer camps organized by the Resistance Social Work Committee (París, August 1945). © Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes (A109946)
Dig for victory

Child labour in all its forms

Work was another of the elements that marked childhood during wartime. The need for manpower and the calls for all the population to make a patriotic effort justified the deployment, both in educational centres and in internment or refuge areas, of various forms of professional training and productive tasks. Due to the prevailing gender roles, this practical education focused, for boys, on manufacturing or, in the case of girls, sewing. In some countries, such as Serbia, a school work service was imposed for teenagers between 14 and 18 years of age. In France, the Centres de Jeunesse model offered housing and a vocational apprenticeship for unemployed young people: in 1944 this program involved 85,000 young people in almost 900 centres.

Outdoor sewing classes. Centre for evacuees from London. Pembrokeshire (Wales), 1940. © Imperial War Museums (989)
Propaganda with the slogan “Dig for victory”. Great Britain and New Zealand. © Imperial War Museums (Art.IWM PST 0696/ Art.IWM PST 16807)

Compulsory schooling generally lasted until the age of 14, but, due to wartime needs, many boys and girls began to work at the end of elementary school, mainly in agriculture, in the war industry or in services to private individuals. In this sense, childhood was part of what was known as the Home Front. In Great Britain, from 1942 onwards, children over the age of 12 were allowed to work part-time and could be absent from school for up to 20 days a year. In the United States, the employment of teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 grew by 200% between 1940 and 1944, and 900,000 children between the ages of 12 and 18 worked in violation of the law in their state.

The Dig for Victory campaign illustrates the relevance of agriculture on the home front and the participation of children. Legislation was especially relaxed with regard to the participation of minors in this sector, including work in school and urban gardens, such as the Italian orti di guerra. To these was added their collaboration in private cultivation, where traditionally the entire family labour force was involved. In Germany, in the summer of 1940, school vacations were extended to allow children to collaborate in harvesting the crops. In famine-stricken regions such as Greece, the agricultural labour force stood out for its young age, as could be seen in Manos Zacharias’ 1948 film Les enfants grecs.

Education and agriculture at Ashwell Merchant Taylors School, near Baldock, Hertfordshire, England. Farmer’s son: life on Mount Barton farm, Devon, England, 1942. © Imperial War Museums (D8555/D9980)
Teenage workers in Germany, September 1939. ©Bundesarchiv (Bild 183-E10868 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)
"This is how we work”. Drawing by Thomas Geve, 16 years-old, of the camp of Buchenwald in 1945. ©Yad Vashem Art Museum (2489/52)

In the occupied territories of Eastern Europe, schooling was limited to the age of 14, the age at which children could be required to work as forced labourers. In Poland, the compulsory regulation service of April 1940 was applied from the age of 12. In the case of minors deported with their families, the age was reduced to 10 years and, in the course of the war, this age limit was also applied to transit camps. Women with knowledge of German and “acceptable racial appearance” could be required from the age of 14. Forced labour represents one of the many traumatic experiences of childhood as a consequence of the war.

Children in a forced labour camp, Sered, Eslovaquia. © Yad Vashem Photo Archive (3984/11)
Children at school with gasmasks. Drawing by Alexander Macpherson, 1941. © Imperial War Museums (ART LD 1217)